2015 the year of... emoji

In the first in a series of pieces looking back at the year just gone, we consider what the words, and emojis, that defined 2015 say about us.

by Dean Kissick
14 December 2015, 11:52am

One prism through which to consider the past year is what words we used the most, and what words we invented. Oxford Dictionaries have named the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji the word of the year for 2015, not just emoji of the year, but word of the year, so what does this ecstatic pictogram, and all those other words too have to say about the last twelve months?

To begin with, what were those words of the year? Well Oxford Dictionaries announced a shortlist of nine words (ad blocker, Brexit, Dark Web, face-with-tears-of-joy emoji, lumbersexual, on fleek, refugee, sharing economy, they) while Collins Dictionary announced its own shortlist of ten words (binge-watch, clean eating, contactless, Corbynomics, dadbod, ghosting, manspreading, shaming, swipe, transgender). Considered together, they suggest some trends about the way we live now...

This year's inclusion of "they" used as a singular, non-gendered pronoun, as well as "transgender" reflect a more open-minded approach to gender today. One which the emoji alphabet is yet to catch up with; my friend Martin, a model who used to walk in the Gareth Pugh womenswear show, recently wrote online, "Where are the trans emojis?! And why are there any emojis with men?! Men are sick!"

On which note "cis", meaning those who perceive their gender as the same they were assigned at birth, should surely also be a word of the year?

New Economies
Evidently there is much interest in innovative economic approaches such as the "sharing economy" in which things or services are shared between individuals - for instance AirBnB and Uber - or the "Dark Web", that internet underworld that can only be accessed through special software allowing for anonymous marketplaces to buy and sell illegal drugs, and other clandestine activities. Or the "ad blocker" which allows you to enjoy the entertainments of the virtual world without the advertisements that pay for it.

There is also much interest in economic philosophies such as "Corbynomics" on the left, meaning the economic policies advocated by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, such as tackling tax avoidance and reducing tax relief for big business, and "Brexit" ("British exit") on the right, meaning our hypothetical departure from the European Union in order to, theoretically, remove the economic burden of subsiding Europe and stop immigration. Another word of the year was, of course, "refugee".

Unsurprisingly there has been a heightened interest in technology-enabled forms of indulgence, such as ordering narcotics on the Dark Web or consuming a whole season of a television show in one big "binge-watch" - which is actually Collins' word of the year. The dictionary-compilers could also have included "Netflix and chill" as slang for casual sex.

Basically the internet is like an irresponsible friend, that hides out with us in our bedrooms and encourages us to buy really, really pure Peruvian flakes of cocaine (irresponsible and possibly life-threatening), or waste a whole weekend binge-watching Tim and Eric Awesome Show (why not?), or make sweet nookie on the sofa with Arrested Development playing quietly in the background (wonderful).

Distant Communications
Communications with one another from a distance, without words, have been happening since the times when we made smoke signals in the day and lit ominous bonfires along the hills at night. Only now we might instead post a video of ourselves looking good, with our eyebrows "on fleek" or whatever, just like 17-year-old Chicago teen Kayla Newman who popularised that adjective after uttering, "We in this bitch, finna get crunk, eyebrows on fleek, da fuck." I think it's nice that, in the past nobody really understood where all this schoolyard slang originated from, but now, if you coin a phrase that becomes one of Oxford Dictionaries' words of the year, well as long as you post it online first you can prove it was you.

This year we also communicated with "swiping" which is mostly used to accept or reject potential lovers on Tinder - it's the modern equivalent of making eye contact with the object of your fantasies, and having them look immediately down towards the floor (shy, embarrassed, totally down) or up and away (utterly revolted by you) - and we communicated by not communicating at all, by "ghosting", which is when you attempt to end a romantic relationship by just never, ever responding to the other person. And, lastly, we sent really a lot of emoji.

Face-with-tear-of-joy Emoji
Ever wondered how emoticons were invented? According to the official story computer scientist Scott Fahlman was the first person to type out smiley faces with the express purpose that they express emotions when, on 19 September 1982, he posted on the Carnegie Mellon computer science message board:

"I propose the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-("

However the official story is nonsense because the first emoticon was actually invented by Terry Jones, founder of i-D, when he made our first issue in 1980 (if not before). Because "i-D", as you hopefully know, is a winking face turned on its side. Maybe, just maybe, we have Terry's typographic inventiveness to thank for this strange world of symbols and disembodied facial emotions that we inhabit today. And also Japanese mobile phone company employee Shigetaka Kurita who designed the very first emoji in 1998 or 1999, inspired by things in the city and expressions that he observed people making in the street; how cool is that?

Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji as word of the year because these ideographs are completely transforming language and offering a way to express one's self emotionally without the presence of a body, to add an emotional tone to text messaging that was previously missing; this summer a British mobile phone provider's survey suggested that 72% of 18 to 25-year-olds can express their feelings more easily through emoji than words. In the case of this face-with-tears-of-joy emoji that makes a lot of sense because laughter is itself a way of communicating without words, and a pictogram is just as good and perhaps a better way to show your amusement as an awkward "lol" or "ha ha ha" or "haaaaaaaaa".

Of all the 845 emoji out there Oxford Dictionaries chose face-with-tears-of-joy because it was the most used emoji around the world, and accounted for 20% of all emojis used in the United Kingdom in 2015, rising from only 4% in 2014. Hopefully it means that, despite everything, this was a year somehow filled with laughter and joy.


Text Dean Kissick

2015 the year of
2015 year of
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year of emoji